Today I want to touch upon one aspect of good dialogue – what Dwight V. Swain calls dialogue continuity in his book, Film Scriptwriting – A Practical Manual.
Swain suggests that one of the markers of good dialogue is continuity. That is, each speech, be it short or long, acknowledges the one preceding it in some direct or indirect way.
There are several ways to achieve this. Below are two of the most common – repetition of a word or phrase, and a question / answer structure:
In Independence Day the President of the United States questions an alien who is speaking through a surrogate:
President: Can there be a peace between us?
Alien: Peace? No peace.
President: What is it you want us to do?
Alien: Die. Die.
Here, the clipped berevity embedded in the question and answer format, and the repetition of the word ”peace” and ”die” ties each line to the one preceding it with no possibility of drift.
“The techniques of question & answer, and repetition, are effective ways to create dialogue continuity in your novels and screenplays.”
In Unforgiven, William Munny, a hired killer, is told that his old friend, Ned Logan, whom he talked into joining him for a contract job to take revenge on some cowboys for the beating and scarring of a prostitute, has been killed by the Sheriff, Little Bill, and his men. This, despite the fact that Ned had withdrawn from the contract earlier without having harmed anyone. The news is a major turning point in the story:
Prostitute: Ned? He’s dead.
Munny: What do you mean he’s dead? He went south yesterday, he ain’t dead.
Prostitute: They killed him. I thought you knew that.
Munny: Nobody killed Ned. He didn’t kill anyone. He went south yesterday. Why would anybody kill Ned? Who killed him?
There are other ways to turbo-charge dialogue – pregnant pauses, misdirection, change of subject, subtext, but in all cases the important thing to remember is that each piece of effective dialogue should, at the very least, hook tightly into the next. Question / answer and repetition of specific words are two of the most common ways to achieve this.
The techniques of question/answer and repetition are effective ways to create dialogue continuity in your novels and screenplays.